Another chapter of my latest work, The Firefarer. The story is available in a more advanced version on Wattpad.
Dawn was rising by the time they broke camp and set off in land. The sky remained dark and pitched with menace over the sea, but a thin finger of red graced the mountain peaks of the Harars up ahead. Carin strode in front, trident strapped between her shoulder blades, her bare feet disappearing amongst the tall, fine grass blades of the plains.
“Come on, Moran!” She turned, her face wrapped in a scowl. “I’d have us out of Paga territory before the light rises.”
Perhaps, Moran thought wearily, she was still lost at sea: half dreaming, half drowning. But then her sister handed her a flask and she tasted sweet water, not brine. A light breeze picked up, whisking her hair, casting it into her eyes. It was all too real.
“Where is the Golach now?”
“In the caves at Mearah.”
Moran stopped and stared at Carin. “In the Harars?”
“Where else would he be? It’s his last refuge.”
Moran craned her neck back, taking in the wild, bleak summits which towered over the plains: dull stretches of grass and scree clinging to their sides. Even now in mid-summer, dirty patches of snow still lay in gullies or the low troughs of cols. It was as desolate and unforgiving a place as she could imagine, but it remained a last refuge for the Ruach. Up there amongst the mountain wastes were old friends and neighbours – many who had survived the days of terror. And, of course, amongst them reigned her king in exile: the Golach.
“Moran for the last time! I don’t want to be climbing when night falls.”
Biting her lip, she hitched up the tattered remains of her dress and ran. “So tell me,” she panted, catching up with Carin, “which one of your spirits told you where I was?”
“They’re not my spirits. They speak to us all. Well, all of us except you.” She turned to Moran with a gaze which fell just short of pitying. “Perhaps you don’t know how to listen.”
“I’ve listened for them every day, sister. It’s they who have abandoned me, not I them. Perhaps I’m simply not a Ruach. Perhaps I’m some…some changeling. Perhaps our mother…”
“Enough!” Carin snapped, her jaw set, her pace quickening as she pushed on across the plain. “I’ll not hear that kind of talk, Moran, and you know it. You’re enough of a Ruach to know where your duty ought to lie.”
“Well apparently on that score I fail too.”
Carin lapsed into stony silence, chewing on her lips as if she were biting back words.
“Do you see our parents amongst them?” Moran asked. “Amongst the spirits?”
There was a long pause. Her sister appeared to be labouring beneath a weight, a deep, pressing burden. “No,” she said at last.
“And so who do you speak to, then? What are they like?” She took in the raw emptiness of the plains with their long, slender grasses dancing on the dawn breeze and shivered. “Are they here?”
“They come and they go. I hear them on the wind. Sometimes I see them.” They approached a shallow brook which filtered down from higher ground, its waters sluicing around rocks and over pebbles. Carin knelt on the bank and lowered her leather flask into the stream to refill it.
Crouching beside her, Moran dipped her hand, keeping it beneath the icy flow. “Which ones brought you to me?”
Carin shrugged. “The Golach made the storm. It was he who brought you back. I merely listened. Voices whispered to me – some I recognised. I’ve heard them before. Some babbled in Ahi or Pagese. Those I ignored. There was one…” she squinted, her gaze fixed on the middle distance as she screwed on the cork of the flask. “One I had not seen nor heard before.”
“What was it like?” Moran asked, eager to catch a glimpse into a world she had never entered, a world denied her from childhood.
“Female, I think. She speaks in a tongue I’ve never heard – nothing even you would recognise. And she carries with her a strange, glowing box upon which she taps and produces shapes, images, some system of language I suppose. She looks unlike any of us – Ruach, Paga, even Ahi.”
Moran shuddered. “You make me almost glad I can’t see them, Carin.”
“That’s blasphemy. And besides, they saved your life.”
“Yes, but as you said, the Golach had more of a hand in that. And for what dismal purpose I cannot begin to imagine.”
Carin gazed at her for a moment, her hard, dark eyes softening, betraying a brief lapse into compassion. But then it was gone like a sudden glimpse of the sun through storm clouds and they pressed on, the ground steepening, their breath shortening.
Before them, the grass and plains gave way to treacherous slopes of scree and boulders, an occasional rowan or patch of broom hanging precariously on dried, withered roots. Hardened as Moran’s feet were after a lifetime spent barefoot, she avoided the sharp edges of loose stones where possible, scrambling instead amongst the clusters of boulders, feeling for hand and footholds. It was exhausting. Her lungs fried, her arms and legs ached until they were numb, sharp slabs of slate grazed and cut her fingers, dirt congealing beneath her nails. She gazed upwards to observe Carin perched on an outcrop above her, eyes closed, lips parted as if in conversation. Dragging herself up to meet her, she sank down beside her sister amongst clumps of yellowing, withered grass and seized the flask, almost crying out in relief as water hit her parched throat.
“They were here,” Carin said.
Sweat ran into Moran’s eyes, soaking through the plaid of her dress. But body heat soon surrendered to the cold, biting wind which seemed to weave its way beneath her very skin, whistling about her ears. She strained to catch the voices she knew had just ridden upon it but heard nothing. Just a phantom-like howl as air rushed between crevices and cracks in the mountainside.
“They told me it isn’t far now, Moran. They will guide our way. The Golach fears … he fears discovery and so he moves from cave to cave.”
“He thinks the Paga would find him up here?”
“The Paga would go to the ends of the earth to catch him, sister. And it is only their own ignorance which has kept them from hunting him down so far. If they had ears to the spirits as we do – I mean as I do – he would not be so lucky.”
“The spirits would betray him?”
“They are not our spirits, Moran. Though it pains me to say so, they belong to all of us – Paga, Ahi, and Ruach alike. Even their church, which claims that one cannot know the spirits, even they are amongst them – the wraiths of their prefects, their monks and sisters. Imagine that! How deaf they are. How blind…” She snorted in derision. “The spirits are the essence of those we have lost, regardless of race or nation. And one cannot take a good spirit from an evil man. Just as they were in life, so they are in death.” She took the flask from Moran’s hands and corked it. “Save it,” she warned. “There is no water now until we reach the caves.” “
Moran thought of this, as the dumb, wild wind whipped up her hair and shook her to her very core. Her sister was wrong. Andre had told her that the church believed in the spirits. But they would not give a name to them, refused to define them. Once again Andre floated before her, now also grown spirit-like, her wit, curious beauty and warmth hardened to an essence in Moran’s imagination. She opened her mouth to speak but Carin was already rising and offered her a hand, hauling her upright. Frozen muscles screamed into action and she found herself standing, sore and stiff, the vast plains stretched out below her and the straits now lying calm and placid, sunlight glinting on their waves.
It took another two hours before Moran spied a jagged gash amongst the rocks, signalling one of the entrances to the Mearahn caves. They clambered over boulders and rubble and slipped inside, the solid walls of slate offering some shelter from the wind’s bite.
“Where now?” She peered into the depths of the tunnel which trailed away into absolute darkness.
“We pray that we don’t get lost,” Carin replied grimly, already stalking away. Moran released a soft growl of irritation and then followed in her wake. Her sister’s terse, tactless manner had always grated, and sometimes that irritation spilled over into pure fury. But this was not a time for arguments. Here amongst the labyrinthine knot of shafts and channels which ran deep within the mountain, conflict would only sap their strength and increase their chances of getting lost. And the thought of staggering, half-starved and desperate along long, unlit corridors of slate and basalt chilled her to the core.
At first, light filtered down through chinks and cracks above her head where the caves opened out onto the mountainside. But as they moved further in, the darkness seemed almost solid in its intensity and she could hear nothing but the persistent thud of blood within her own ears. Aware of the weight of rock above her head she speeded up, almost crashing into Carin who let out an angry hiss. “Take care, can’t you? There could be shafts beneath our feet for all I know.”
She heeded the warning and slowed down, trailing her hand along the dry, crumbling wall, aware of the tap tap tap of Carin’s trident as she checked for fault lines and breaks in the floor before her.
Moran did her best to quell a rising sense of dread as they continued for what seemed like hours. The caves sucked out all sense of time, all memory of light or fresh air, and when she spied at last a tiny pinprick of torchlight burning up ahead, she could have wept.
They approached the brand which burned in its bracket on a distant wall and even Carin seemed to sag with relief, the flames painful in their brightness, illuminating the craggy outline of tunnels which led off to right and left. Bracketed torches beamed away in both directions, fading into the void, and Moran thought she heard the distant murmur of conversation, but could not be sure as to where it came from. “Which way?” she whispered.
“Neither,” Carin replied. “These routes are red herrings set up by the Ruach to send unwelcome guests astray. Our path leads down.”
“Down?” Try as she might, Moran could not see any other path. The rock was solid, the passages twisting away as far as she could see. Carin tapped once more upon the floor with the tips of her trident, the bronze ringing out against the rock. But then it gave out a different sound – a dull, hollow thud. Dropping into a crouch, Carin scrabbled on the floor, pulling away a few loose rocks. To Moran’s surprise she tugged at a swathe of netting, pushing it to one side before levering up a pair of dry, dusty planks of wood.
A dank rush of air fed up from the caverns below and Moran’s stomach lurched. A hempen ladder swung down beneath them, hanging on bolts fixed into the stone of the floor. She peered over the edge – what appeared to be stars nestled in the darkness, thousands of tiny lights winking back up at them.
“What’s that?” she whispered, awed.
“The earth’s core glowing.” Carin smirked. “Candles. Want to go first?”
Moran shook her head, now almost sick with exhaustion, hunger and fear. “You go.”
“As you wish.”
Her sister swung a leg over the edge, grabbed the sides of the ladder and disappeared down through the hole. Moran observed her, wrestling with a growing sense of dread. Carin revelled in such dangers, where she shunned them. The world was full of terrors enough without seeking more.
“Moran…” Carin’s voice echoed up from the cavern below.
“Pull the planks back over the hole when you come down.”
Perfect. Not only was she to risk her life dangling from a manky old bit of string, she would also have to seal herself back into darkness. “Alright,” she yelled down.
Moran placed one tentative foot on the ladder. It seemed solid enough and so, her stomach now threatening to spill, she lowered herself onto the next rung. The bolts creaked and groaned, but they held. Gripping the rope with one hand, she hunted around for the planks with her other, knuckles clenched and paling as she clung on in desperation. Her hands now slippery with sweat, she dragged one heavy piece of wood over her head, reached for the other and then stopped. Something didn’t seem right. There had been a noise, a faint hint of tearing.
Panicking, she peered downwards but could not see Carin. Below her, the candles appeared to float in the darkness, and she realised she had no idea how far above them she was. She took one last, desperate look up towards the surface. No one would notice that plank out of place, surely? Her grip was failing and if she held on for much longer, she ran the risk of plummeting from the ladder altogether. And so she carried on down.
“Moran, what are you doing up there?” Carin’s voice seemed to emanate from the very air itself.
“Nothing. I’m coming.” Perhaps she had imagined that light, ripping sound. Her nerves were on edge, that was for sure. She pressed on downwards, refusing to succumb to her fears, cursing herself for a coward. And that was when she heard it – it happened so fast she had no time even to scream, as the hemp coiled in on itself above her, lashing her in the face as she fell. She was weightless suddenly, her legs and hands grabbing pointlessly at the air as if she might catch hold of it. The world rushed up to meet her and then all was silence.